Penn State Football

Penn State football: Blitzes paying off for Nittany Lions but defense not getting much help

Penn State’s Marcus Allen (2) helps Mike Hull tackle Maryland's Marcus Leakin the Nittany Lions’ 20-19 loss on Saturday.
Penn State’s Marcus Allen (2) helps Mike Hull tackle Maryland's Marcus Leakin the Nittany Lions’ 20-19 loss on Saturday. CDT photo

C.J. Brown had to have his head on a swivel on Saturday.

So have the rest of the quarterbacks that have faced Penn State’s front seven this season.

But the Maryland quarterback was targeted not just by defensive ends and linebackers — Penn State’s defensive backs got in on the action, too.

Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop hasn’t been shy about calling blitzes to help his defensive line. On Saturday, Shoop relayed 17 blitzes down to captain Mike Hull and Penn State sent extra pressure on 25 percent of its snaps.

It was an effective strategy.

Maryland finished with just 194 yards, the fewest for any Penn State opponent this season. The Terrapins lost seven yards on running plays against Penn State’s blitzes. Meanwhile, Brown completed seven of 13 throws for 67 yards, a total that was inflated by a 25-yard gain when Maryland picked up the blitz in the fourth quarter. Brown also was sacked by Marcus Allen who jumped the snap count up the middle.

“We’re going to keep bringing it every single week and bringing it from wherever we can,” Hull said.

They’ve done that most of the season but the Nittany Lions’ blitzes were even more exotic on Saturday.

Hull and fellow linebacker Brandon Bell came up the middle and from both ends, often looping around one another to further confuse Maryland’s interior linemen. Allen followed them — on the most direct route to Brown — on two occasions. Cornerback Jordan Lucas snuck to the line of scrimmage and timed blitzes around the edge. Safety Jesse Della Valle flew around Maryland tackles on two running plays, too.

Allen, playing a heavy role on defense for just the second game, was involved from the start. Hull said it was a way to get the true freshman some confidence and put him in a position to make big plays.

“Marcus, that fits his skillset to get in the backfield and blitz a bit, the same with Jesse Della Valle so I think we’re trying to utilize them more, especially in the rush game,” Hull said.

But Penn State has had to defend short fields time and time again. Whether they’ve had to trot onto the field after a short possession ending with a short punt or a turnover, six of the eight touchdown drives Penn State has given up over the last four games have started in their own territory.

That was the case with Maryland’s game-winning field goal where Stefon Diggs’ 15-yard return set the Terrapins up at Penn State’s 42-yard line. All they needed was a moderate gain — which they got on a 13-yard screen pass — to get kicker Brad Craddock into range.

“The last drive started with a pretty short field,” Hull said. “We gave them too much on that first down screen and thy basically were in field goal range right then and there. So it was really one play that broke us on that last drive I thought. We’ve got to play better than that when the game’s on the line.”

The Good

Allen got himself into a bit of trouble with two personal foul penalties — a hit out of bounds and a late hit — but overall, the true freshman played pretty well and recovered nicely after his shaky start.

Allen led the team with 11 tackles, picked up a sack and was close to getting another.

He wasn’t the only true freshman to make an impact. Grant Haley and Christian Campbell were terrors on Penn State’s punt coverage units and kept one of the Big Ten’s best return teams in check all afternoon. William Likely finished with minus-7 punt return yards when either Campbell or Haley was the first Nittany Lion on the scene.

Haley did put the ball on the ground on a kick return but overall it was the first big hiccup for the youngster whose play has been promising thus far.

“Grant and the fumble was a big play in the game, but he has also made a bunch of big other plays,” Franklin said. “His coverage on punts that didn’t have much hang time were big. ... They’ve been playing a lot of football for us and for the most part, have been good as true freshmen.”

The Bad

An offense that is struggling to put points on the board did itself little favors with two fumbles and an interception. All three came from the quarterback.

Christian Hackenberg tossed an interception when DaeSean Hamilton ran a post instead of a go route. Later, the quarterback had the ball slip out of his hands for his first fumble and failed to get the snap when Penn State needed to convert a 4th-and-1 to keep the game alive for his second.

A turnover on special teams didn’t help, either. Maryland only put up seven points off of turnovers but Penn State had two drives end on Maryland’s side of the 50 on its first two giveaways.

The Ugly

There was a lot of ugly in this game.

From the offensive ineptitude on both sides to the embarrassing unsportsmanlike behavior at the coin toss from Maryland and the retaliatory penalties from Penn State in the first quarter, neither team should come away from this one feeling good about much.

For Penn State, the frustration on offense — particularly from Hackenberg — was easy to see. Sideline blowups aren’t uncommon in football but they are from Hackenberg and it appears the quarterback has lost his patience with an offense that tries to go East-West in order to get North.

He and offensive coordinator John Donovan had multiple sideline conversations that appeared to be heated. At one point, after throwing an incomplete pass intended for tight end Mike Gesicki in the end zone, Hackenberg tried to walk past Donovan who had to grab the quarterback by the arm in order to get a word in.

Franklin was asked about the sideline discussions and said he wasn’t “sure specifically what you’re talking about.”

“What I will tell you is, he wants to be successful and he’s extremely competitive,” Franklin said. “He’s getting pressured and hit a lot and you take a guy that had some successes as a true freshman and then this year we’re not able to consistently protect him and run the ball. It’s a fine line and I think that’s part of what makes him really good.”

Day to Remember

Sam Ficken had himself an afternoon.

Wind gusts up to 25 mph. didn’t hamper and neither did a new holder as Ficken made three field goals over 45 yards look easy. He hit kicks from 48, 47 and 46 yards and added a 25-yarder and an extra point too. A few touchbacks would’ve made his day even more impressive but at this point, Ficken is in a zone and to nitpick his game would be silly.

Right now he’s Penn State’s most consistent scoring threat.

Day to Forget

The offensive line continues to be Penn State’s weakest link and gave up five more sacks, a few more free runs at Hackenberg and did little to neutralize Maryland’s linebackers in the running game.

“I think he’s an outstanding quarterback,” Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. “But when he has to move his feet, he’s not as productive. I thought our guys did a really good job of putting some hits on him and getting him to move his feet and I think it affected him.”

Maryland defenders turned in nine tackles for loss and Penn State managed just 42 rushing yards on 41 carries against the nation’s 99th-ranked rushing defense.

Key Play you Already Forgot

Looking to take advantage of a turnover late in the second quarter, Penn State dialed up a rare vertical pass play on first down.

Geno Lewis ran toward the corner of the end zone from Maryland’s 25 and had a step on Terrapin safety Sean Davis. Hackenberg fired a ball that was a bit underthrown and Lewis had to wait on it. The underthrow allowed Davis to catch up but Lewis still got his hands on the ball and nearly caught it over Davis’ head. He didn’t and Hackenberg fumbled on the next play, spoiling a prime opportunity.

Hidden Stat That Matters

How valuable has Ficken been? Without him the Nittany Lions’ point total over the last four games shrinks considerably. Ficken’s right foot has produced 30 points in that span while the rest of Penn State’s offense has just 18.